In his incredible forty year career, legendary Northern Ireland and New Zealand raised actor Sam Neill has starred in a multitude of both mainstream movies and independent films, spanning continents, characters, genres and budget sizes. His latest film, Sweet Country, is an Australian frontier drama inspired by true events that embraces traits from the Western genre.
Australian native Warwick Thornton adapts Steven McGregor and David Tranter’s screenplay which tells the tale of Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), who accidentally kills an irate white bigot tormenting his family. Kelly goes on the run from law enforcement which takes the shape of the affable Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), accompanied by his Good Samaritan employer Fred Smith (Neill) who wishes to guide Kelly home to safety.
Before Sweet Country, Neill featured in critically acclaimed commercial thrillers (Dead Calm, The Hunt For Red October), prestige dramas (A Cry in the Dark, The Piano, Restoration), quirky independents (Sirens, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, The Dish), mainstream and arthouse horror movies (The Final Conflict, In The Mouth of Madness, Possession), sci-fi/ fantasy (Event Horizon, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Until the End of the World, Escape Plan, Merlin) and one of the most revered blockbusters of all time (Jurassic Park). More recently Neill appeared (albeit briefly) in Thor: Ragnarok and The Commuter.
Outside of film-making, Sam Neill neither shuns nor embraces the Hollywood limelight/lifestyle. In recent years his more natural habitat seems to be that of the hardworking, farmer. Since 1993, Neill has been the propriety of Two Paddocks and works part-time as a farmer /vintner along with some family members and friends: producing fine wines on one of his four organic vineyards in Central Otago. They also grow saffron, lavender, have orchards and various decorative animals according to the website.
HeyUGuys recently caught up with Neill to talk about Sweet Country, the rural, wine making life he leads outside of film-making and his hopes for the future of Australia and New Zealand’s cinema/ film industry.
HeyUGuys: Can you tell me a bit about your latest film Sweet Country and the type of character you play?
Sam Neill: Sweet Country ostensibly uses traits from the western on one level but has something much deeper to say. My character is distinguished from those around him by the fact that he sees Aboriginal people as human beings. You’re probably aware that Aboriginal people have been living in Australia for a minimum of 70,000 years but didn’t actually get to be able to vote until the 1960s. They were essentially seen as Flora and Fauna in some states which is quite extraordinary.
Sweet Country received major support from Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department. How did you find working with the local Aboriginal actors? They must have had a personal connection to the material.
Well, I loved them to bits. It was very sad to part ways in a sense because one of the cast did me the honour of making me his skin brother. We referred to each other as brothers. I was his Tjapaltjarri brother, so we formed some very close friendships and I will miss that.
That must’ve been amazing to form such a bond. Do you find working on smaller, personal projects like this closer to your heart as well as your home?
I’m happy to spread myself around. Always happy to go back to Britain and work there. These days, I don’t spend a lot of times in Los Angeles. It’s just not really my sort of place. Good jobs in Europe are always attractive too.
You acted in another film some years ago called Sirens which was also set in the 1920s Australian outback, the same as Sweet Country (1920s). How did that and the Sweet Country shoot compare?
Well (starts laughing) that was a very different kind of film… and character.
Yes they were! Sweet Country looked like quite an isolated production and more of a harsher setting compared to Sirens. How does working on a smaller production in an environment like that differ from working on bigger films? Is it easier to focus on the character and material?
I liked it. I had a nice horse and we would start working early in the morning but we had to shoot this film quickly. I thought it was a very beautiful place to work but the revelation is; not many people in Australia get to see the outback properly. It’s an extraordinary place to be. We had floods and fire and all kind of things. A snake would come through every once in a while. Bryan Brown got bitten by an immense spider that almost killed him.
Oh no! I hope he was ok.
He was fine in the end yes. We’re going to do another film together later in the year.
You and Bryan have worked together a few times now, you must be close.
Yes Bryan is a very close friend of mine and we enjoy working together very much.
I’ve seen your tweeted photos of you two on your vineyard. It looks so amazing and serene. Do you prefer working on the winery and living that kind of rural, sweet country life to acting now?
I wouldn’t say that but I do get a great deal of satisfaction from my farm and vineyards. I like to spend as much time there as I possibly can because it’s a great part of the world to be in and a nice time of the year too. It’s getting to the time when we can start picking which is exciting, in about four weeks but, touch wood, between now and then anything can happen. We had snow on the hills about three nights ago but we didn’t get any frosts, fortunately. Frosts are our worst enemy here but everything has gone pretty well this season so far. It’s been a good one.
You directed a documentary a few years ago called Cinema of Unease where you spoke about the New Zealand film industry and the cinema it produces. In it you said that it reflects a lonely place with symbolic roads. Do you think the same could be said of Australia and its cinema given the rural landscapes and how Sweet Country is so brooding with how it reflects on its past?
The country has a long and complex history. We’re beginning to hear the indigenous voice more loudly and clearly than before. Aborigines and their relationships with white Australians are a vital part of Australia’s story that has not been told in great depth until relatively recently. We’re beginning to see some very fine work come out of that. Apart from being an adventure, Sweet Country is also a very important film as well and one that a lot of Australians will respond to extremely well. Some of them find it very uncomfortable but they should. It’s terrific and I’m very proud of it.
I think there are a lot of universal themes in it than transcend the time and setting too which viewers all over the world will connect to. As well as the ultimate question it poses: what hope do we have?
That’s right. It’s a question that hasn’t been answered yet.
I read that the director Warwick Thornton grew up in Alice Springs, the area Sweet Country was shot?
Yes absolutely, it’s his patch really. Warwick’s previous film Samson and Delilah was one of the more interesting things that ever came out of Australia so to work with him was kind of a no-brainer. I think directors like Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins are very talented. They’re both very strong and very interesting film-makers.
As well as appearing in big budget mainstream movies like The Commuter and Thor: Ragnarok, you also act in smaller, more pertinent films, made outside of the studio system. Hunt for the Widerpeople was an absolute joy.
Yes, I’m very fond of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and it’s interesting to compare it to Sweet Country because Taika’s an indigenous voice as well. Also Taika and Warwick are friends. Very different sorts of film-makers though. I think Taika has a lot to say and I hope he doesn’t become purely a Hollywood director after Thor: Ragnarok which was very successful. I think Taika still has a lot more to say about New Zealand amongst other things. But we’ll see what happens.
Taika’s an auteur. You can see that unusual part of his character in all of his films.
Yes that’s right. He has a very quirky sense of humour which should be applauded.
Eagle Vs Shark and Boy were brilliant.
Yes, I’m glad you saw those! And What We Do in the Shadows, did you see that?
Yes! That was amazing, how could I forget that?! What films have you got coming up next?
I’ve got a couple of Australian films actually. I’m going to do a film called Ride Like a Girl which is about a young woman who is the first female jockey to win the Melbourne cup. I play her father. And then I’m about to do an ensemble piece. Rachel Ward directing and Bryan Brown will be producing. That’s called Palm Beach. I still like to keep busy with acting. When I’m not picking my grapes of course.
Well, I won’t take up any more of your time. Thank you very much for talking to us today Sam.
It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Sweet Country is released in UK cinemas on 9th March